Government to be quizzed over journalist’s phone records

The country was quite rightly up in arms over the News of the World’s devious phone tapping exploits.

And now a local newspaper is equally indignant after discovering that Suffolk’s most senior detective obtained the private mobile phone records of a journalist without his consent in a bid to discover who he had been speaking to.

Journalists are fiercely protective of their source of information, they risk going to prison rather than revealing  his or her source, their reputation would be lost if they disclosed that valuable information given on the basis of trust and confidentiality.

Now it seems that if the police want to check out who a journalist has been speaking to on their mobile phone, then they can just go ahead and obtain the records without their consent.

This has naturally infuriated the editor of the East Anglian Daily Times, who has requested a full explanation from Suffolk’s Chief Constable. Reporter Mark Bulstrode only discovered his phone records had been obtained after making a request under the Data Protection Act.

Police have defended their action saying there was concern that the disclosure of information could have jeopardised an investigation into a serious crime, potentially resulting in an offender evading justice.

They obtained the phone records after the journalist approached the force with information about the reopening of an historic investigation. Despite the EADT agreeing not to run anything on the inquiry because of its sensitive nature, police wanted to know how they had found out about the case – so obtained the phone records.

However, it brought condemnation from Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, (my former editor at the Cambridge Evening News where he was fondly known as Captain Bob), who described it as “outrageous” and said he would be raising the matter with the Government. Shouldn’t there be a code of conduct which applies to this kind of action?

Local MPs are also disturbed by what  happened. South Suffolk MP Tim Yeo said:

“I have never regarded mobile phone records as being especially secure – having said that I think the police would have to show good reason why they should take this kind of action.â€?

 Chris Mole, Labour MP for Ipswich, said:

“It is not acceptable for them to go trawling through records on a fishing expedition without clear evidence.”

Reporters are bound to speak to their sources by mobile phone, but how safe is their source going to feel knowing that police can check up on the reporter’s phone records in this way? I wonder how commonplace this is, and whether a reporter’s emails are safe too from intrusive eyes, thanks to the skill of hackers. Does the digital age mean journalists can no longer keep anything secret?